Dining and Driving on the Empty Freeways of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — It’s good form to keep a schedule in isolation, something I’ve never been good at, until now: I wake up at 4 in the morning, I look at my phone in total darkness for three hours, check the news, the number of new cases, the death count. I mute, then unmute, the family WhatsApp. Then I get in my car, and I drive.

I skipped a step: I carry single-use wipes to clean the door handle before I touch it, the steering wheel, the gear shift, the seatbelt, the keys and my phone. I sanitize my hands. Then I drive.

Los Angeles right now is how I imagined it to be, before I moved here. Endless blue skies and stretches of open freeway, the edges smudged with orange poppies and wild buckwheat and tumbles of pink and purple bougainvillea.

I’d thought about what it would feel like to cruise at 80 miles per hour with the windows down, until I ran out of road and reached a canyon or the ocean. But I hadn’t imagined the harrowing reality that would make these clichés possible.

I rarely leave my car, except for a curbside pickup. I eat at red lights, on freeways, in parking lots.

I pull up beside people in their own cars and we are alone, together, with piles of pale, skinny fries on our laps, or eating fat, wet burritos off our pollen-dusted hoods, or passing bits of pastrami and tortilla chips to the dogs in the back seat, or weeping between snotty bites of sandwiches over FaceTime.

Dining-room service ended weeks ago, and restaurants have been distressingly quiet since.

Thousands of workers — dishwashers, busers, cooks, servers — were laid off or had their hours cut. Many I’ve interviewed aren’t sure how they’ll make rent, or even afford groceries for the week. Some kitchens are focused on takeout or delivery with skeleton crews, or turning their dining rooms into shops selling provisions for home cooks. Others have closed. But the drive-throughs seem busier than ever.


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A few days ago, long after the lunch rush at the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard, cars wrapped around the lot in a slow, rolling line that crawled up North Orange Drive. After a few impatient drivers honked and abandoned the queue, two workers in paper hats hurried out, building an extra lane with orange cones, trying to keep up.

Since In-N-Out opened in 1948, the company has used a two-way speaker to take drive-through orders, the same system used by most fast-food companies now. It always seemed so efficient and impersonal to me.

Now, without the din of a busy dining room, the occasional poke of a stranger’s elbow in your back when you’re squashed together at the bar, without the possibility of a server chatting with you at the table, the two-way speaker is a kind of lifeline — intimate and reassuring.

“We’ve been slammed,” said the worker who stuck out the credit card PIN pad at arm’s length, when I asked how she was doing. But I couldn’t tell if she was relieved, or scared. I couldn’t tell if going to restaurants right now was supportive, or exploitative.

Before moving to Los Angeles, I associated drive-throughs with the national chains that popularized the form, but many of the city’s most reliable drive-throughs are smaller, independent restaurants. I’m thinking of places like Arry’s in Montebello, or Daglas Drive-In in Winnetka.

Writing for Eater, Farley Elliott called this category of fast-food diner the “true regional specialty restaurant of Los Angeles.” Every neighborhood has its own burger/chili/burrito/pastrami restaurant — yes, that’s a specific kind of restaurant — and it’s often complete with ancient menus and sticky booths.

Last week, I drove by for a pastrami sandwich at Rick’s Drive In & Out on Fletcher Drive. It’s an absurdly large roll of thinly shredded pink meat wrapped in a fine layer of butter-fried bread. It is possible, though perhaps inadvisable, to eat it while driving.

My order at Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers, on San Fernando Road, is the sourdough patty melt, bound together with a little too much sticky cheese and a fine dice of onion. The bread is buttery golden and crisp, never spongy, and the patty that’s hidden inside is crunchy-edged and thin. It is cut diagonally. It is consistently perfect.

Through the open window of my car, when it’s lined up with the open window of the kitchen, I can hear the cook scraping his wide metal palette knife against the hot griddle. I can hear someone calling out the orders.

It’s not just that I miss the sounds, the smells, the life of the city’s restaurants, the feeling of being a part of them. It’s that I don’t know how or when or if they’ll all come back.

Beaches are closed. Parks are closed. In some neighborhoods, people have put up petty, homemade signs to discourage their neighbors from being on the sidewalks at all.

Public spaces are hard to safely navigate, or totally off-limits and, as a result, I haven’t felt this strongly about my car since I was 16 — not just grateful, but deeply attached. Not just attached, but somehow amalgamated.

Every car is a getaway, even when it’s parked.

In my neighborhood, where so many people live in multigenerational homes, parked cars now double as quiet meeting spaces, meditation rooms, listening stations, nap pods, whatever extra spaces we need.

We sip coffee, fight loudly and make out in our cars. We eat snacks and take important phone calls and watch TikTok videos and put the seats way back and just breathe.

I haven’t seen my brother, who lives 15 minutes away from me, in weeks. He uses his tiny car as an office. Never mind that the floor is covered in Cheerios, and the windows are dotted with peeling stickers.

Week Three of lockdown, and it’s a privilege if you can work safely, in isolation, if you can escape momentarily into your car. Even if — especially if — you have nowhere else to go but home.

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